Monday, December 19, 2011


Yeah, I know, I dropped the ball on this whole "blogging" thing. Good thing I don't claim to be a professional. I have still been running the Dark Sun mini-campagin, but haven't kept you all up-to-date. The good news is I've got at least three articles in the works after this one. What follows below was half written back in September when we played the sessions in question, though I've edited and finished it now, three months later...

It is time once again to tackle the harsh world of Athas. I hadn't been able to set aside dedicated time to prepare, but I have been trying to think of some ideas. It got to the point were I looked at my 8 yo daughter in despair and said "Daddy doesn't have any ideas for his game; his friends are gonna be mad." She immediately offered up "how about a dragon?" to which I smiled and went on with the day.

Later she brought me an index card of "Idias" (her spelling is almost as bad as her fathers) with four items: Dragon, Regular Men, Monsters, and Dinosaurs (my daughter hasn't been properly introduced to Dark Sun just yet).

This actually got me thinking.

Aside from enemies to dispose of, I also needed a location. At the end of chapter two the characters had been banished from Tyr, but chapter three starts at least a year and several levels later. As I didn't have a lot of time to plan a bunch of NPC's, I wanted to avoid a city setting. Lately I've been playing around with a terrain generation program called TerraRay (Mac only, can be found in the Mac App Store). I've generated several scenes, including some set on Athas. This also got me thinking.

I also needed goals. I know the epic tier is going to be about the future of Athas, with the characters trying to secure a better one. I've got a few of the elements for the two chapters which comprise the epic tier already sketched out. But what about paragon tier? In order to secure the future of Athas, the PC's are going to need to know about it's past. This got me thinking some more.

A plan was actually coming together.

Dragons. There are very few actual dragons in Dark Sun, with the most infamous being the Boris, Dragon of Tyr. On Athas, dragons are 30+ level creatures which are the result of a metamorphosis (usually starting as a human) brought on by a powerful combination of arcane and Psionic power. All of the sorcerer-kings are (or were) on this path. The players need to know about the history of the sorcerer-kings. Dragon: check.

Regular Men. Easy, the PC's are regular men. Regular Men: check.

Monsters. Again, monsters are easy. They're everywhere on Athas. Monsters: check.

Dinosaurs. Interpreted as in "relics of the past" rather then the T-Rex variety that my daughter was likely thinking of. A very important part of the history of Athas was the cleansing wars. Each sorcerer-king was tasked by Rajaat to eradicate one (or more) of the races common to Athas at the time. Gallard (who became Nibenay, sorcerer-king of that city) was to wipe out the gnomes; Keltis (now Oronis, sorcerer-king of Kurn) the lizard men. The PC's will experience a part of this. Dinosaurs: check.

Mysteries of the Green Age

Location. I named one of the landscapes I rendered "Mysteries of the Green Age". The cleansing wars brought about the end of the green age, but the world is dotted by the remains of this ancient history. I decided this ruined temple would make a great setting for these plans to come together. So I opened the file in TerraRay again, put the camera directly over the scene, and created an image which I then added a grid to, and printed out as a battle mat. Location: check.

[[NOTE: Material after this point was written in December]]

So how did this all play out? Pretty good, if I do say so myself. We started the first of the two sessions out with the PC's (i.e., "regular men") having been traveling through the desert (on kanks with no names) for many months when they encountered, and assimilated into the group, a new PC (another "regular man") who believes the world literally talks to him in many different voices inside his head (okay, maybe not "regular").

From there they stumbled upon an oasis by following a set of tracks, where they met a group of lizard men, which are thought to be long extinct  (i.e., "dinosaurs").  Fortunately rather then fight the lizard men, the PC's broke bread with them and got direction on where to head. Unfortunately this is yet another example of my biggest "on-the-fly" weakness: linear a-to-b-to-c story chasing.

They were directed to Varat's Temple, the place where the last gnome was killed. As the PC's drew nearer, they kept seeing flashes of that last battle, where the last of the gnomes tried to defend the temple along with some of their lizard folk allies from the armies of Gallard & Keltis. Upon reaching the ruined temple they were faced with some monsters: the cacti in the image were all zombie cacti.

I don't remember if I reskinned the stats here, or if I used SlyFlourish's DM's encounter cheat sheet, but I do remember I made one mistake: they were all stationary. Luckily this didn't prove to be a huge problem. PCs being PCs, they killed anything that looked killable. This provided the big battle of the night.

During the battle the PCs kept getting the flashes of the ancient conflict. They also saw Athas as it was back then, before the end of Cleansing Wars when the toll of unchecked defiling started to become prevalent.

One of the players missed that first session of the chapter, but made it to the second. Instead of hand-waving his character in, I outlined how he had somehow got sucked into this past as a passive observer many months ago, and had seen the battle from beginning to end over and over. This allowed me to hand narrative control over to the player, as I told him his character had seen this battle far more often then I had. I hope to do more similar to this in the future.

The PCs were sucked into the bodies of the last standing defenders. I had each roll a d6 to determine if they were in a gnome (1-5) or lizard folk (6) body. Half of them rolled sixes, go figure. This was to be the gnome's story, as the last of the lizard folk were not killed in this battle, but it's all good. To keep things moving quickly I ruled that they had the same class abilities, but their racial powers were switched with those of the body they inhabited. This is how I got my TPK, as the odds were about 600 to one against the PCs.

As each avatar was killed, the PCs jumped into a body of a soldier near the sorcerer-kings, and were able to observe Gallard ceremoniously execute the last gnome using a ritual which pulled in all the spirits of the recently deceased gnomes and trapping them under the spot where that middle cactus rests. As the scene faded away and the PCs returned to their own bodies, the gnomes cried out to them to be freed.

The final battle occurred as they dug up the artifact which contained the gnome spirits. I forgot exactly how I described it, but they were attacked by a reskinned dracolich (dragon, bingo). When they finally did free the gnomes, I explained how the spirits swirled around them, imbuing them with knowledge and wisdom (i.e., leveling them up from 11 to 16, along with some of their equipment), but also giving them each a visible and obvious physical gnomish trait. They also whispered "the Mind Lords" as they faded away, which was supposed to be their direction for the next chapter, but I flubbed that. (More on that in the next installment).

I believe my players had an enjoyable time. As I looked down at the index card of "idias" my daughter gave me and check each one off: dragon, regular men, monsters, and dinosaurs; I smiled. I think I may be getting the hang of running things on-the-fly, at least the basics...

Friday, September 09, 2011

Freedom? - or - How My Party of 5th-Level PC's Killed King Kalak...

Chapter Two of our Dark Sun campaign was entitled "Freedom?", and encompassed the last two sessions of our twice monthly DnD game. This was a city adventure based loosely, as the name suggests, on the original module "DS1: Freedom". Very loosely.

Actually, our game had very little to do with that of the module.

I had spent what little prep time I was able to put aside reading through the module and thinking of how the events outlined in it could fit into our game. A common criticism of novel based modules such as this is that the PC's end up taking a back seat to the heroes of the book. I agreed that the climax of this one for the PCs--leading a slave revolt while Rikus & company kill Kalak--was less then satisfying. So I formed an idea of how the PCs could do that bit (more on that later), and thought I'd use the events of the rest of the module to get them into position for that confrontation. (Lesson learned: listen to the voice in my head that keeps telling me "this will never work").

That would mean the PC's would be spending most the chapter in the slave pens. Two big problems with that: story-wise two of them were actually members of the Templerate (one with direct ties to Tithian); and the PC's didn't really want to be slaves again. Neither of these were insurmountable, and I could have easily forced the issue as the first chapter of Freedom suggests (and provides encounters for), but that felt cheap and didn't allow the for the players ingenuity. So I ended up running both sessions nearly entirely on the fly.

This is something I felt unskilled and  under qualified to do.

I introduced this chapter by having one of the Templar players read the prologue to The Verdant Passage (not aloud), as his character, Alain, was witness to Kalak discovering the amulets in his Ziggurat and Tithian's subsequent promotion.  Tithian then tasked Alain and his "pets" (aka, the rest of the party) with finding the other two amulets before the Ziggurat's completion. He suggested they start in the slave pits, my (ultra lame) way of trying to get the party to go undercover as slaves in the pits.

Yeah, right, that's gonna happen.

Having two Templars in the party, they decided to throw around their weight to get the information they needed. The prologue gave them the lead to talk to Sadira, one of Tithian's prized slaves and thus off limits for actually killing. As my mind desperately raced to figure out what to do with the game, I set them onto a Final Fantasy-style "goto A, then B, then C" style 'quest'. This I am not proud of.

The PC's were finally allowed to meet with Sadira, who gave them the name of her contact in the Veiled Alliance who gave her the amulet. On their way to tracking down this person I threw in Sub-Plot B: political intrigue. The barely conceived notion was that the Templerate was divided into several factions which had been locked in sort of a cold war, but now one faction was turning violent on Tithian's, specifically targeting Alain. This provided the combat encounters for part one of chapter two, but fell on its face and got pushed to the back in part two when I couldn't figure out a good way to tie it to what the party was doing. This I am also not proud of. (Especially after the players put up a real good climactic fight at the end of part one to capture one of the 'bad guys'.)

I did, however, get the players the information that when the Ziggurat was finished, Kalak would use it to transform into a Dragon, and that the amulets were what the Veiled Alliance were counting on to stop him. The three amulets were needed, but now there were only two as Kalak destroyed the one which had already been located.

A Plan B was needed, giving the party direction for part two. I'm kind of proud of that.

When part two started, I only had two things in mind: Tembo & Kalak. No extended rest in-between. The first half was role-play heavy as the PC's tracked down a new contact in the Veiled Allience (the first one met a merciful demise) to get plan B. I think I did a much better job of letting the players tell the story here, stumbling a little with each new NPC I had to invent. (Lesson learned: spend more prep time on NPCs, less on nearly everything else).

It seemed to go well, even with the sub-plot being side-lined. I actually had a vague idea of what to do there, but it was dependent on at least one of the players who didn't make part one showing up. That didn't happen, so the PvP intrigue was tossed aside. However, I was very happy with the role-playing, and gave everyone the benefit of a milestone before the encounters started.

The players learned that Kalak could be stopped if they destroyed the focus located in his incubation chamber. I decided what that was about two seconds after an NPC gave them that information. This could not be done until after Kalak started his metamorphosis, a detail I don't think I articulated well, but we got past that.

The action started with the PCs in Tithian's observation box when (spoiler alert) Rikus threw the Heartwood Spear into Kalak, prematurely triggering the metomorphosis. The heroes of the book were then tied down fighting the king's guard, so the PC's needed to proceed to the incubation chamber to destroy the focus. If we had more time, I would have turned this into a skill challenge, but we were running short and I wanted to wrap up the chapter, so I hand-waved them to where they needed to be: face-to-face with Kalak's pet Tembo. Other then being a huge instead of a large (and thus having more hit points), I ran this creature straight out of the Dark Sun Creature Catalog. Its purpose in life was to soften the PC's up, which it did well. Of course the party took a short rest, but that ended when Kalak's transformation started draining healing surges from everyone.

Being a Sorcerer-King, Kalak was a 21 to 24 level threat. He was attempting to transform into a Dragon like Borys, the Dragon of Tyr, a 33 level creature. So how am I going to give a 5th level party a chance to kill him? The Heartwood Spear which Rikus threw earlier. I made the power of the spear pull Kalak down to a 7th level solo (in retrospect, I could've gone with a 9th level), and then I reskinned a red dragon from Monster Vault (though with a lot more hit points). This drained the spear of its power.

Also present was the focus, which was comprised of four obsidian globes: two glowing red and two glowing green. Each set got their own initiative. The globes attacked everyone in the room (as well as everyone in the arena, though the effects were much stronger in the incubation chamber). I made the red ones a Psionic blast, attacking Will and doing d12 damage each. The green ones were an energy suck, attacking Fortitude and eating one healing surge each (doing 1/2 HS value if none left--this ended up making the red ones much less impressive).

In the end, despite my not-so-secret desire to kill at least a couple PC's, I ended up only killing the druid's animal companion, but there was a lot of blood on the field and I don't think many healing surges were left. Tithian, Rikus & company showed up after the killing blow was delivered, allowing Tithian to claim Kalak's crown. He then gave Alain instructions to kill the other PC's and join him in court (making Alain an NPC, something I had discussed ahead of time with the player) before leaving with his comrades. Alain mis-interpreted the instructions as escorting the party out of Tyr, banishing them into the desert.

That's not exactly how we called it at the table, but it is how it played out in my head.

Going forward, I can tell Real Life is going to demand that I run games on-the-fly most the time, so I'm going to need to learn my lessons and use what little prep time I have more wisely. Chapter three has the PC's at 11th level, but I currently only have the last two epic encounters in mind. I've got just over a week to come up with at least a vague plan of how to get from here to there, and maybe prep an NPC or two.

Thus chapter two ended on a high-note, and looking around the table it looked like all the players enjoyed it. And that I am proud of.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Little Knowledge

Continuing the adventures of my Dark Sun campaign, our group has successfully concluded what I refer to as "Chapter One", a conversion of the original flipbook adventure "A Little Knowledge". As an introduction to Athas, I think it went very well. As the basis of a campaign length story, it fell flat. But that later part is entirely my fault as the adventures was meant to stand alone, and I had not yet decided where I wanted to go next with the story.

First an overview of how the game went. For this second session, we added a player in who couldn't make the first session. I'm blessed with players who have far greater imaginations then my own, and they did not disappoint in coming up with a great story for how to add the character into the group. It was decided that this character had escaped from the same slave caravan as the party, had wandered for days before picking up their trail, and had been following them for some time. The character then snuck into camp to steal supplies, found out there weren't any supplies to steal, and decided to try joining the group instead. This all came together in a very Athasian manner, with plenty of distrust amongst the characters (but not the players, this is an important point).

The first comabt of the session was very interesting, as it saw not one, not two, but three uses of the brutal weapon breakage rules in the first round of combat. A total of five weapons were broken due to natural 1's being rolled, two by the same character. We also were presented with the question: when one is reduced to bare hands and rolls a 1, do their hands break? Half the table wanted to go with 'yes', the other half looked like they'd get up and walk away if we went that extreme. My feelings on the matter are that there comes a pont when too dark becomes too little fun, even in Dark Sun. After all, these are first level characters in a fourth level encounter with no armor, things are already looking bad.

We only had two combat encounters for the session, though I had prepared a few more. The rest was role-play and skill encounters. I had two goals for the night: to wrap up the chapter, and to determine how they would start the next one. Would they start it free, or enslaved once again? Thus it was not very important to me that they follow the hooks which were presented, nor (with the benefit of hindsight) was it much of a suprise when they didn't. This I will have to note for the future. But it turned out for the best as I was able to wrap up the chapter right on time without things feeling too rushed (or so I think). For those keeping score, the crafty PC's managed to evade the shakles.

So how did I pull this off? The flipbook adventures break things down to one or two page encounters. A Little Knowledge has 24 such encounters. I went through each one and did my best to convert them from 2E to 4E. As I do not have DDI, I relied heavily on Sly Flourish's DM Cheat Sheet, as well as reskining. The Wezer (a wasp-like five foot tall insect) and the Kluzd (a Meso-American looking snake) were the two creatures I stated up on my own using these tools, while the Silk Wyrm is one that I toned down from the Dark Sun Creature Catalog.

Being that Dark Sun is a challenging world, I purposefully aimed towards making most the encounters 3rd or 4th level. But once I got to the table I second guessed myself and softend some of the encounters up a little (though not much--I blame the total lack of PC deaths on this). I also kept a copy of Marauders of the Dune Sea and Bloodsand Arena handy to pull out filler encounters, which I ended up using two or three times.

Next up is "Chapter Two: Freedom?" I've advanced the story to about a year later and bumped the PC's up to level 5, which was met with great enthusiasm. I believe I know what story I want to tell for this chapter, I just need to figure out how I'm going to chop it into two 6- or 7-hour blocks. I want to put together a dozen or so encounters which support the story, yet are not necessarily A to B to C, creating a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure style. That being said, there are certain encounters which need to be had in order to actually tell the story.

A combination of limited time to prepare, and just my natural inclination, shows me that I lean towards the "winging it" style of DMing; but two sessions at the table make it clear to me that I have a lot to learn before I can successfully pull such a thing off. Currently my biggest challenge is characterization, which will be really important in the next chapter of this campaign. I find I'm really liking this chapter-based approach, and hope to further fine-tune it so when I start my homebrew it flows more naturally.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Defiling vs. Preserving in Dark Sun 4E

Perhaps the single most defining aspect of the Dark Sun campaign setting is defiling magic. It is the reason the world is a desolate waste-land. So I think any game set on Athas needs to have a good mechanism to represent this.

In the stories, all magic is cast by the spell-caster first drawing energy from the surrounding vegetation. If the caster is not careful and draws the energy too quickly, the plant life will quickly wither, die, and turn to ash. This can be avoided by carefully pulling the energy, and only taking exactly what is needed. Wizards who did this were called Preservers, those who cared not were called Defilers. Mechanically, any spell caster could preserve or defile, the choice was made at the time of casting. Really powerful magic ("Dragon Magic") could pull energy from creatures, and there was at least one wizard who drew her power directly from the sun.

In the original game, these were two separate classes. My memory is foggy on how it was supposed to work around the game table, but 2E was sufficiently complex that I'm sure this was all covered by the rules. 4E takes a different approach, trying to simplify defiling by giving any Arcane caster with a daily power an At-Will Free Action to re-roll any attack or damage roll for a daily power. Though indeed simpler, it just didn't feel right to me, so I've created a set of house rules to make defiling more representative of how I envision it.
The 4E Dark Sun Campaign Setting book outlines “Arcane Defiling” as a free action which can be used to re-roll an attack or damage roll for a daily power. I’m going to allow this to be used for any roll done in the execution of any Arcane power, but only once per round. (This means anyone who has any Arcane power has access to this ability. ) Further, the re-roll is done at +5 per tier. However, each time it is used all allies in 20 squares take necrotic damage equal to 1/2 their healing surge if the power is a daily power, 1/4 if it is an encounter power, and 1/8 for any other.

Further, use of Arcane Defiling creates an area of Defiled Terrain (as outlined in 4E Dark Sun Creature Catalog p. 134 - usually producing a “Dead Magic” zone, but could produce others depending on circumstances). The area is a burst equal to twice the level of the power for daily spells, equal to the level of the power for encounter spells, and equal to 1/2 the level of the power for at-will spells (minimum size is the square the defiler is standing in).

Lastly, every use of Arcane Defile earns the caster a Defiler Point. I’m still working out exactly what this will mean, but at this time I think this will be significant mostly in social encounters. If you are familiar with Dark Side Points from Star Wars Saga Edition, I’m thinking something similar to that.
I think this gives more of the flavor of defiling. It is not something only done by powerful wizards for powerful spells in the fiction of the world, thus I was unhappy with the original rule. These house rules give a solid benefit beyond just re-rolling, which represents the extra power a defiler can wield. They also extend the ability to all types of spells, which again is more representative of the source material. The biggest difference is that defiling in 4E affects creatures and vegetation, much like Dragon Magic in the original setting. I'm keeping this as part in part to keep the power balanced.

So, what do you think? If you use this at your table, I would love to hear about it.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Let the Game Begin

It's been awhile since we last spoke, but not a lot has happened, so I guess that's okay. I've managed to read through a bulk of the old Dark Sun novels (though not all of them), as well as many of the original source books (I'd guess about 33% of them). All the while I had not been able to come up with a campaign idea.

Instead, I came up with what I believe to be a really cool campaign idea for a homebrew campaign, using the Nentir Vale stuff as a springboard. I've actually got a lot of ideas for that game, with specific encounter ideas and story arcs for all three of 4E's tiers of play. It should be noted that literally none of these ideas fit into Dark Sun as I envision the campaign setting. I presented this to my potential players as an option for when it came time for me to run, but it lost out to Dark Sun (though it was second amongst several options).

So Dark Sun it is. I do have a long-term story idea for the party. The goal will appear to be fairly obvious, but, this being Dark Sun, the end-game is not. I even have a story idea for the heroic tier. I'm still going to mine the 2nd edition adventures heavily for story and encounter ideas. I don't think, however, that I'm going to run the game straight through from 1st level to 30th level. Instead, we're going to skip around.

My current plan is to divide the game into chapters, spreading each chapter over 2-3 gaming sessions (we generally play for roughly 6 hours twice a month). Each tier will be maybe 3 or 4 chapters. This will give us a taste of the Dark Sun world at each tier, but save me from having to force story elements which don't fit the arc. Plus, I think the players tend to prefer paragon tier.

And we've already started. This past weekend (on July 2), I ran my first D&D 4E story-based game (I was able to run a one-shot encounter a month or so ago, but that's much different). We stated out at first level, and I ran the first half of my conversion of "A Little Knowledge" from the original box set. I think it works as an introduction to the world of Athas, though it has little connection to the overall story I have in mind (not necessarily a bad thing, in my humble opinion). Though there were no PC deaths, there was some hurting going on (it is either ridiculously hard to kill PC's in 4E, or it was ridiculously easy in previous editions).

As far as running the game goes, I was quite nervous about the whole thing, and very self-conscious about what I was doing wrong as a DM. I also kept second-guessing myself as to the toughness of the encounters and creatures I was running. However, the players were very forgiving, and I hear with time and experience one usually improves. It is because of this that I think running the Dark Sun campaign before my homebrew story is actually a good thing--the story for that game will be much better with (potentially) dozens of sessions worth of experience.